Today we dropped you, our oldest, our only daughter off at the airport. This trip has been months in the making- so much research and planning. Buying the right gear, reading what we can about the journey, knowing that the point of it is the unknown, the unplanned and unpredictable.
It was a familiar time warp, the hours before your flight left. It brought me right back to the day your dad deployed to Iraq. Time transformed into a thick, tangible thing- finite and clunky. Ticking down. Running out. Acute. We made our way through the mundane tasks of the morning- breakfast, rotating through the showers, cleaning up, as you loaded the final things into your backpack. Suddenly it was time. But how do you leave your childhood home and family? Of course you must. Of course everyone does. Of course it’s what we wanted for you, what you want for yourself. Yet to stand on the porch and hug your three brothers goodbye… this is nothing we have ever rehearsed.
On the 30 minute drive to the airport we download last minute train maps and take screen shots of itineraries. We suddenly realize the constant contact we are used to having- being a mere text or phone call away- is no longer a given. It might be days between communication- and while I know you are capable and smart and brave and strong, I also know the world can be big and scary and confusing sometimes. I am not one to live in that mindset. I’m more often prone to say yes to the wandering and adventuring and the unknown. Yes, to believing it will all work out and that you will stumble upon the right people in the right place on the right street at the right time. Yes to assuming safety instead of danger. But this sending a child, a woman-child out into the world on her own does wake all the latent, hidden fears in a mother’s heart.
We navigate to the check-in counter and for a brief, panic-stricken second it seems like the gate agent measuring your bag may tell you it’s too big. I see the stress wash over you and wish that there is something I can do to fix it, but I know this is a small thing, something bound to happen in the life of a traveler, something to cause you to problem solve and adjust. The gate agent lets you carry it on, and we are off to the gate after my last few attempts at selfies with you and trying to document this moment as you not so patiently urge us to move along.
We show you how to find your gate. How to read the departures list, check the time, find the best security line. You change money so you have some Euros in hand. As we walk you toward the security line, you and Emma charging on ahead, Dad, Liz, Eric and I trailing behind with our stomachs fluttering, it suddenly hits me that this is the end.
This is as far as we can go with you. This is where we say goodbye. This is where your journey begins, your Camino. Your pilgrimage. We cannot stand in the meandering line with you, or show you what to do at the checkpoint. We have to leave you here and say goodbye. Goodbye.
So we don’t know how to do this because we’ve never done it before, and it is simultaneously much too fast and in slow-motion. I hug you hard and long. We both tear up. Your tears trigger mine because I know that little girl behind those eyes- I know her inside and out and I’ve been with her her entire life and now I won’t be. I cry because I know I’ve never really been the one in control anyway- I can only do my part but there are no guarantees of safety or security or happiness or comfort and that’s not even the point of it all. I cry because you are so wonderful and precious and brave and beautiful.
There are hugs all around. Probably more than one round. Liz and Eric and Dad and I Iook at each other and realize we should probably go, now that you are standing in line. There is nothing more for us to do here. You are on your journey, and we must go home to ours.
The rest of the day we are in a daze. There is a shocking and sudden vacuum of your presence. And the hardest part is knowing that it will never be filled in exactly the same way again. You will come home different. The person we sent is not the person who will return. Home will always be a stopping point for the next part of your journey, a base from which to venture forth over and over until one day you have your own. A threshold, never a destination.
I lie in the hammock and listen to moody music. I sway in the sun, because it’s about all I have the energy or heart for. Just to be present to the heartsickness and what it feels like- the knowledge that you are gone and will be gone and how much that will change our family dynamic. I am reminded of the hard work of birthing a baby- there is no way to avoid the pain but to go straight through it, into the heart of it and let it wash over you completely, surrendering to each surge of pain. It’s the fighting or running that hurts more. This is the right thing, and also the hard thing. Honestly, a part of me just wants to numb this feeling. To drink it away or eat it away or run it away until I don’t have to feel it anymore. But I know that won’t save me. The only way out is through. Always and forever. It was true when I was in labor with you and true of this separating now. There is nothing to be done in life but to have a broken heart, as the poet David Whyte says.
You’ve been gone a little over a month now and I spoke to you this morning for about an hour. You tell me about the path, the villages, the changing landscape and terrain, the update on Emma’s blisters and footwear saga (you’ve gotten to be an expert at lancing her blisters, for good or bad).
You tell me how in some places the path is marked with the official Camino de Santiago crest- a tile or plaque with a blue background and a yellow scallop shell and arrow, pointing you toward the way you should go. Wayfinding is easy when you see this sign. It feels like safety and certainty. But then you tell me how in many places the only signs to show you the path are yellow arrows spray-painted on the ground, the side of buildings. How it is easy to wonder if you are still on The Way, or if you have somehow become lost. How you have begun to develop and intuition for the right path.
And what I want you to know is that this is the way of life. You may start out with the clear markers, telling you the way you should go (school, jobs, relationships, all the things that you establish in your young adult years). But it is far more common to be wandering and wondering, to be searching for the clear sign and find only a faded, spray-painted arrow on the side of a building. To have to hone the hearing of the still, small voice, Spirit and your intuition guiding you.
The scallop shell you seek might be an interior talisman, your body, breath, spirit telling you something your mind doesn’t quite understand yet. I want you to learn to trust that. Your body knows things before your head. Do not force yourself into giving things false names, or seek false ways of knowing for the sake of the comfort of seeming certainty. It might seem easier to name things before their time, but it will always hurt you, and probably others.
Sometimes you will doubt you’re on the path at all. You may find yourself on a lonely street at dusk hoping there’s going to be room in the next village once you get there. Or you might turn down a lane that leads you off into a sheep track, a field surrounded by stone walls and no clear way in sight.
You might be tempted to think these are mistakes, misunderstandings of the signs. But what if they aren’t? What if the One leading you and guiding you, journeying right beside you, in fact, knows your every footfall and allows you to explore and maybe get what feels like lost.
Listen- even more surprising is that sometimes the invitation, The Way itself is into the wilderness. On purpose. The wilderness is that place of uncertainty, without clear makers, where all the sure, hard-fought signs and knowledge you once held fall straight away and you are left with everything murky, foggy. And if you want to follow Jesus, He will invite you there. He did not shy away from Wilderness. The great mystics themselves have said that often the culmination of spiritual seeking ends in a “great cloud of unknowing.” “When you first begin [this work], you find only darkness, and as it were a cloud of unknowing. […] Reconcile yourself to wait in the darkness as long as is necessary, but still go on longing after him whom you love. For if you are to feel him or see him in the life, it must always be in this cloud, in this darkness”
But you can never be lost if you are with him, if you are his. And he won’t ever let go of you. His love is always a safe circle for you. There are some things the Wilderness teaches us that we can only ever learn there, once our certainty, our logic, our understanding are stripped away.
It will be hard for you to believe this, because at this point in your life you are building and collecting knowledge, gathering a library of understanding and belief to give definition to your borders, your very self even. That is right and good, but I pray that you will hold this stone in your back pocket for the times when you suddenly find yourself unsure of the path, looking for the clear markers that once defined your faith, your self, what you knew to be true. It will feel terrifying at first, to not see them any more, to feel so lost and alone. But you will never be alone. The Wilderness is as much a part of The Way as the clearly defined steps bordered by cobblestones and low walls. And at the right time you will see the sign again, the yellow arrow or maybe even this time the official plaque, showing you what’s next. But you may also just have to follow the wind and trust.
On the phone, we talk about your future and the rest of this gap year, your thoughts about how you want to spend the second half. You talk about pros and cons. I remind you that God’s will, your purpose is not a tightrope to be walked, with no margin of error, but an open field to run in, or rest in. You can know that he is the shepherd you can trust.
I have no doubt The Way has taught you many tangible lessons over this last month- how to journey side by side with someone who walks a different pace than you, how to remember to look up, look around, listen. How you can go further than you think you can. How sometimes the path is incredibly boring, but you just keep going in the same direction because you long for the destination. How there are always the right people, the right conversations for you just when you need them.
I hope one of the great lessons you keep with you all your life is that our many identities can always be subsumed by this: we are all always pellegrinos. Pilgrims. We never arrive. We are always walking toward the horizon of what we are about to become. And that is the journey.
“Caminante, son tus huellas
el camino y nada mas;
Caminante, no hay camino,
se hace camino al andar.
Al andar se hace el camino,
y al volver la vista atrás
se ve la senda que nunca
se ha de volver a pisar.
Caminante, no hay camino
sino estelas en la mar.”
— Antonio Machado
Traveler, your footprints
are the only road, nothing else.
Traveler, there is no road;
you make your own path as you walk.
As you walk, you make your own road,
and when you look back
you see the path
you will never travel again.
Traveler, there is no road;
only a ship’s wake on the sea.
translated by Mary G. Berg and Dennis Maloney